Massive Marine Debris Cleanup Underway

A collaborative effort to clean up hundreds of tons of marine debris generated by the 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami on some of the most remote shores of Alaska and Canada is underway through mid-August.

The project involves use of helicopters to sling several thousand super sacks and bundles of marine debris from dozens of remote sites onto a 300-foot barge being towed by the tug M/V Billie H from Kodiak through the Gulf of Alaska and then south to British Columbia.

The debris is to be offloaded in Seattle for sorting and recycling, with the remaining debris sent by train to a final disposal site in Oregon.

Officials with the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation said the project is funded in large part by a goodwill gift from the government of Japan.

Recycling efforts are being coordinated by Parley for the Oceans, Bionic Yarn and CDL Recycle, Seattle.

The March 2011 tsunami that resulted from a magnitude 9.0 earthquake some 230 miles northeast of Tokyo killed thousands of people and destroyed much of the area’s coastal communities and infrastructure. Marine debris that washed away included building fragments, polystyrene foam, aquaculture and fishing buoys, polyurethane, docks, shipping containers, vessels, fuel tanks, drums, lines and nets, household items, and plastics.

Since then large amounts of debris of suspected Japanese origin has been found on coastlines from Kodiak Island through Prince William Sound and Southeast Alaska, and that debris is expected to continue arriving for several years.

“Debris on our shores is not a new problem in Alaska, but we have definitely seen an increase in quantities and a change in composition as debris from the tsunami continues to impact our coastline,” said Elaine Busse Floyd, director of DEC’s Division of Environmental Health. “It has far reaching effects on our environment, fish and wildlife, commercial, recreational and cultural interests, especially since debris migrates inland over time with weather and tidal influences.”

The Japanese government has donated $5 million to the United States to help with cleanup efforts in the five Pacific states and $1 million to British Columbia.

Since 2012, as the lead agency for Alaska, DEC has used a combination of funds from Japan, the state of Alaska and other resources for an aerial coastline survey to assess the extent of the marine debris problem.

Funds from Japan, grants from the Alaska Legislature and the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council and other awards from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have supported numerous marine debris cleanup projects.

Debris from many of the early cleanup projects was disposed of in Alaska landfills.